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Drug Court Planned For Tallahassee Florida

GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications
Published On: July 21, 2001          Updated On: August 07, 2001
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

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Drug Court Planned For Tallahassee Florida 010721

They spend years trying to chase down the rapturous sensation that came with their first hit on the pipe. It's a ghost, always out there, on the next street corner, in the next rock.

They scheme, rob and sell themselves. They beg and steal. They blow out their hearts and arteries and let their bodies waste away to jittery shadows. They do it all for a $10 piece of cocaine and cooked baking soda that never quite gets them anywhere but jail or the morgue.

Tallahassee Police Chief Walt McNeil decided a few months ago he wanted to change that. He had an idea for a community court that would offer drug-addicted criminals a shot at treatment instead of incarceration. Since early spring, police, city officials and treatment experts have been meeting to come up with a plan. 

And now, despite objections from prosecutors, they have the beginnings of one. According to Greg Frost, a planner with the Tallahassee Police Department, the program would take about 200 drug addicts a year off the streets, put them through treatment, help them get job training and a job.

It hinges now on two grants - totaling nearly $3 million over three years - from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The money will pay for staff, including a prosecutor, public defender and bailiff and for basic operation costs. Frost said city officials expect to know by September whether they'll get the money.

"There has to be at least some effort within the Tallahassee-Leon County area to see if we can stop the revolving door," McNeil said. "We hope this works. We hope this makes some difference. 

"I'm extremely optimistic about the treatment grant. I think anybody looking at our community can see that we have a treatment problem, and the dollars will come."

McNeil said the court won't be a police program, though his department is leading the initiative. Police will make arrests as usual, and it will be up to the court to change the "revolving door" system that puts them back on the street with little effect, he said.

The plan so far is this: 

It will at first be limited to the Frenchtown area, where police say the drug problem is the worst. Those charged with misdemeanor offenses including prostitution and theft would be taken to the Leon County Jail.

There, an intake specialist would review each case. If the offense is linked to drug addiction - in other words, if those charged were stealing or turning tricks to buy crack - then they'd be referred to community court.

The court will be located in Frenchtown - officials are looking for a building to use now. Circuit judges on loan from the Leon County Courthouse will preside on a part-time basis. 

Defendants who are convicted would be given two choices: jail or treatment.

They'd go through another assessment process. Counselors would determine the type of treatment - detox, medical and psychological - that's needed. Treatment could take up to a year or longer.

Once addicts finish treatment and stay clean for several months, they'd be given job training and then put into job placement. City officials are working on that now but don't have details yet, said Pat Holliday, an analyst with Neighborhood Services.

It won't be easy. Addicts normally have to make several attempts at rehabilitation before they escape crack. Some never do.

One 33-year-old Tallahassee mechanic, who didn't want to give his name for fear of losing his job, said he's been trying to kick drugs for 14 years. He hasn't been able to, even though he moved out of Frenchtown to the south side. He has a wife and a child.

The man got out of jail just four months ago. He's still using - spending $100 a day on crack - and worries that his probation will be violated.

"By using crack cocaine, it's caused me to live a life of crime," he said. "I take the plea, thinking I've got probation and some clean time, I can do some good. But within six months, I'm right back in that environment.

"The urge hits me. My stomach just starts turning and balling up."

Like many who've been through the system, right or wrong, he has little respect for the courts. No one's interested in getting help for addicts, he said.

He admits he'll never be able to get off crack without help. He seems interested in McNeil's plan. It would give him what he needs to get clean: a change of environment - of people, places and things.

"I'm all for something like that," he said.

Public defender Nancy Daniels, U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Monticello) and state drug czar Jim McDonough also have expressed support for the initiative. Daniels is part of the planning committee. A Boyd spokeswoman said he has offered his help. McDonough wants other Florida communities to watch and learn from Tallahassee.

Rodney Floyd, president of the Griffin Heights Neighborhood Association in Frenchtown, said his group will be watching and likely participating in the community court.

"A lot of people feel you need some alternative to the current process," he said. "People do need some sort of aid to get out of the cycle, and I think this is a good alternative."

But not everyone approves of the community court. State Attorney Willie Meggs, who was initially opposed, still isn't quite convinced. While grant money would provide him with a prosecutor to handle cases, he said he won't devote anyone to the program full time. 

And he isn't sure it would work. Meggs said he thinks defendants, if given a choice of 60 days in jail, or a treatment program that could last up to a year, followed by probation and schoolwork and with the possibility of jail if they don't stay clean, would choose jail.

"My solution to that is give them 60 days in jail," he said. "If they get out and go back out there, we'll give them another 60 days." 

Newshawk: Sledhead -
Pubdate: Sun, 15 Jul 2001
Source: Tallahassee Democrat (FL)
Copyright: 2001 Tallahassee Democrat.
Author: Tony Bridges

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